Fire equipment idled, crews dispersed to fill staffing gaps One truck unavailable for nearby fire yesterday

February 25, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

To try to clamp a lid on spiraling overtime costs, the Baltimore Fire Department began taking equipment out of service yesterday and dispersing crews to fill staffing gaps.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres said none of Baltimore's 42 fire stations would be closed, but the department intends to take two pieces of equipment out of service on each shift and reassign crews to understaffed stations. This eliminates the need to call in off-duty employees and pay them overtime -- a savings of $300 per shift per person, he said.

One of the first engines removed from service, Engine 27 housed at Mannasota Avenue and Brehms Lane in Northeast Baltimore, was unavailable to respond to a nearby fire on Moravia Road yesterday afternoon, causing "a minute or minute-and-a-half .

delay" in battling that fire, said Charlie Williams, second vice president of the firefighters' union.

Though off-duty, Mr. Williams was at the blaze in the 4400 block of Moravia Road. He said the fire heavily damaged several apartments in one building.

With Engine 27, "our initial attack would have been better," he said. But, he added, "I'm not going to say the fire would not have been as bad."

Chief Torres has said that taking two engines out of equipment would not produce a discernible difference in the department's response. "You still have fire units in each fire station," he said. Firefighters would be called back if a major fire erupts, he added.

"The costs are escalating very quickly," Chief Torres said, citing the bad winter weather and, since last summer, several major fires that have left the department, like the city generally, behind the financial eight-ball.

The new policy resulted in part from the firefighters' union's opposition to an earlier plan to reduce crews on each truck by one person, Chief Torres said.

Firefighters' union vice president Charles E. Carroll agreed that he'd rather have the current policy than keep three people on each engine, which he called unsafe. The real answer, he said, is for the city to fully fund the Fire Department, despite the projected budget shortfall of $3.2 million.

Mr. Carroll complained, however, that the union not only wasn't consulted about the new policy but also wasn't told about it directly. "We heard about it from a firefighter," he said.

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